Editor's note: This is the first of three columns from Mercury sports editor/Kansas State beat writer Ryan Black looking back on the Wildcats' first season under new head coach Chris Klieman. The second column will run Friday and the third will come later this month.
Reflecting upon the first regular season of Chris Klieman’s tenure at Kansas State, one that went better than anyone who doesn’t show up at the Vanier Family Football Complex every day — and maybe even some who do — could have expected, it’s easy to focus solely on the numbers.
Like K-State’s 8-4 overall record. Or its 5-4 mark in the Big 12, good for a third-place tie in the league, six spots above where it was predicted to finish.
What gets lost in the shuffle are Klieman’s words. The way he thinks. What he believes. At least in press conference settings, he comes across as candid and thoughtful. That’s not to say there aren’t times when he might be curt, particularly following a loss. But that’s what one expects from any coach.
Sifting through the thousands and thousands of words Klieman has uttered this fall, three quotes, at different times of the season, stand out.
The first came in early October, just days after K-State’s 26-13 loss at Oklahoma State. It was not just Klieman’s first defeat with the Wildcats; it was his first setback in any on-field fashion since Nov. 4, 2017, when he still coached North Dakota State. After that, the Bison won six games in a row to capture another FCS national championship. NDSU followed that up with a 15-0 campaign and another national title last year. Klieman then won his first three games with the Wildcats before running into the Cowboys.
His 24-game personal win streak snapped, Klieman was honest about the situation: losing so rarely (he went 69-6 in five seasons at NDSU) means that it’s harder to reconcile when it does come to pass.
“At North Dakota State, every win felt like a relief, and that’s terrible to say,” Klieman said Oct. 1. “It really is terrible to say that it was a relief, because you were a target every week. Everybody circled that game every week for eight years. So you won a game, and I’d come home and say, ‘Man, why am I not enjoying this? I’m more relieved.’ So when you did lose, it just tore your heart out.”
Baylor ripped Klieman's heart out of his chest again a few days later, handing K-State a 31-12 loss at home. It was the first time a Klieman-coached team had lost consecutive contests since 2005, his lone season at Loras College. (He never lost back-to-back games with the Bison.) So when K-State rebounded to top TCU 24-17 in a hard-fought game Oct. 19, one would think Klieman would be over the moon.
Back on Cloud 9.
Only he wasn’t. Not exactly.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the results,” he said. “That’s part of our issue in society is we’re all so based on results, and if the results aren’t there, man, then it’s a negative day. We need to focus on the process as players and coaches.”
After that triumph over the Horned Frogs, the Wildcats sat at 4-2. Their final six regular-season games followed a pattern: two wins, two losses, two wins. Following Saturday’s 27-17 victory over Iowa State in blustery conditions at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Klieman dubbed it a “great team” effort.
Then he went into territory rarely seen from a head coach in any sport — and certainly not one as overtly masculine and machismo-driven as football.
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘Don’t ever underestimate the power of belief, and the power of love,’” Klieman said. “Those guys believe in each other, they love each other, and when you have those two things going, you’ve got a great chance to be successful.”
(There might not be any crying in baseball, but in this case, there’s love in football.)
Those are just a few hand-picked quotes from Klieman over the course of the last three-plus months. There were other solid contenders. It’s just that these three, snapshots of different points on the timeline of an up-and-down season, stood out above Klieman’s more oft-used refrains.
Namely, “stacking good days on top of good days.” The Wildcats, obviously, have had more “good days” than bad since Klieman replaced Bill Snyder. And it’s still a bit stunning what the team has accomplished since then.
Klieman and his first-year staff inherited a running back corps that didn’t boast a single player who had had a carry in a Wildcat uniform. They lost the undisputed leader of their defense — and possibly the player who would have been their leading tackler this fall — during the spring after senior linebacker Justin Hughes tore his ACL. They lost two receivers (Hunter Rison and Isaiah Zuber) expected to be key cogs in the offense. And since the season started, injuries have continued to take their toll on the squad, especially on defense.
Saturday, the Wildcats took the field without the top two corners on their depth chart, with AJ Parker and Walter Neil standing on the sideline beset by injuries.
Yet Klieman never let the roller coaster emotions of his debut season affect him or his team — and it shows in the win-loss record. Lesser teams might have folded. (That likely would have meant K-State missing a bowl for the second time in as many years.) Instead, the Wildcats kept their heads above water and pressed on.
Their actions spoke loudly.
Klieman’s words, at times, just spoke louder.